Fleener Rising To The Top
By Ryan Reiswig
Throughout life, everything is constantly evolving, changing, and getting more advanced. Whether it be technology, medicine, engineering, and even sports, change is the one constant.
In regards to sports, athletes have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger through the years and this trend has had a dramatic effect on how each sport is played.
For example, in basketball, more and more kids are coming out of high school that are nearly NBA ready. In baseball, there seems to be an abundance of players who can steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in a season. Lastly, in football, players are dramatically bigger, faster, stronger, and more athletic at every position than ever before.
One position in football that stands out in this sports evolution is the tight end. Years ago, the tight end was an offensive lineman that had good enough hands to catch a ball or two every once in awhile.
As time has passed, as former tight end greats Mike Ditka and Kellen Winslow gave way to players like Brent Jones and Shannon Sharpe, to the current day's Tony Gonzales and Antonio Gates, the tight end is a dramatically different position than football's forefathers ever imagined it to be.
In the Pac-12, one of the prime examples of this evolution is the Stanford Cardinal's gem of a tight end, 6-foot-6, 244-pound Coby Fleener. A senior on the No. 4-ranked Cardinal, he's become one of Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck's number one targets through the past few years and one of the top tight ends in the nation. If Fleener hadn't changed his mind early on, he may have taken a route that didn't include football.
"I always wanted to play basketball growing up as a kid," says Fleener, an Illinois native. "I kind of came into my own in football in high school and I've been very fortunate to be where I'm at right now."
Like many great tight ends before him, Fleener excelled on the basketball court before taking his talents to the gridiron. In addition to being the a top-20 football recruit in Illinois coming out of Joliet Catholic Academy, Fleener was also an all-area basketball player during his time there. Stanford is especially glad he chose running routes instead of the three-man weave, but it's on the hardwood where Fleener was able to hone some of the skills that make him an NFL prospect today.
"I think there's a lot of things that translate through multiple sports," says Fleener, a second-team All-Pac-10 selection last year. "Cutting, jumping, and running are quick movements that are required to get around people. Obviously blocking out is big, especially in the red zone when you have to get in between a guy and the ball. I think you see that a lot in the NFL when you see tight ends that played basketball throughout college and have been successful in the NFL."
As the season winds down, the Cardinal are in a must-win situation every game to keep their national title hopes alive. This means the men with the big "S" on their helmets will be coming into each and every game with the mindset that it's their biggest of the year, which is a good thing for Fleener.
In the biggest game of his life up to this point a year ago in the 2010 Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech, Fleener had a career-high six receptions for 173 yards and three touchdowns, a performance that had to leave NFL scouts salivating.
Next on the Cardinal's radar is Saturday's contest with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a school Fleener has some connection to going back to his roots in Illinois, where he grew up only a few hours from the South Bend, Ind., campus.
"I knew of Notre Dame, watched them growing up," says Fleener, who was recruited by numerous Big Ten and Big 12 schools before heading out west to Stanford. "I wasn't a huge fan of any one school in particular but my cousin signed with Notre Dame out of high school. It would've been interesting had they offered me (a scholarship)."
In hindsight, Fleener is very happy with his choice of college.
"Stanford I think sells itself," says Fleener. "In my opinion it's the best combination of academics and athletics available where you can get a scholarship (for sports). For me it was a no brainer."
Aside from the athletics and academics, Stanford has a geographic advantage that helped lure the fleet-footed tight end to the West Coast.
"It's hard turn down the beautiful California weather," says Fleener, who is sure to be drafted in the NFL's upcoming draft in April.
While Fleener will have many friends and family members making the long trip out west to Stanford Stadium for Saturday's game, he will be taking the same business-like approach demonstrated by Stanford's football teams in recent years.
"It's the next game for us," says Fleener, third on the Cardinal this year with 8 touchdowns. "We prepare for every game the same way regardless of who the opponent is. I'm definitely excited because I have a lot of people around where I'm from who follow Notre Dame and are big Notre Dame fans."
If Fleener can put up anything close to the big-game performance he had in last year's Orange Bowl, he may be giving a lot of friends and family a long plane ride back to the chilly Midwest.
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